Apr 16, 2021 Last Updated 9:08 PM, Apr 13, 2021

Staff back Pal

A fresh protest at the University of the South Pacific's Laucala Bay Campus in Suva was quickly stopped by Police Tuesday when protesters were told they had to apply for a permit.

The protesters - angry at what they say was the illegal suspension of Vice Chancellor, Professor Pal Ahluwalia - were members of the University of the South Pacific Staff Union (USPSU).

"The main reason why we wanted to come out and protest was because yesterday, we were protesting for Pal to stay but we have now received confirmation that he has been asked to step down so we needed to protest and also to be heard," USPSU General Secretary Lima Finiasi told IB Online.

"The appeal we want to make today is to all the leaders of the region who owns the university. We believe that the Vice Chancellor was elected by the full council and it will need the full council decision to remove him. And we believe that the meeting yesterday is questionable in legality in terms of how it was called and how it was conducted and the powers it has to remove the Vice Chancellor," Finiasi said.

He said the protesters respected the law and withdrew their protests because the police were polite, but it did not deter their quest to press on with their resistance to what they believe is a sinister attempt by certain interests within Fiji's ruling elite to remove Ahluwalia.

Ahluwalia, who was appointed to the position last year, had compiled a damning report exposing alleged financial mismanagement at the university.

Yesterday, hundreds of staff and students held two separate protests at the Laucala Bay Campus as word got out that a meeting by a subcomittee of the university's ruling council was being convened by the USP Council chair Winston Thompson, and that the purpose of the meeting was to discuss allegations of misconduct against Ahluwalia.

Related protests were also taking place at the university's Alafua campus in Samoa.

"We have been writing for the past few weeks, appealing to members of the various councils, appealing to the various heads of states...and there have been responses from the various ministries of education in member countries including the incoming Chancellor, President of Nauru. But all these things couldn't avoid the meeting that took place yesterday," said Finiasi.

Established in 1968, USP is jointly owned by the governments of 12 member countries: Cook Islands, Fiji, Kiribati, Marshall Islands, Nauru, Niue, Solomon Islands, Tokelau, Tonga, Tuvalu, Vanuatu and Samoa.

Fiji is USP's biggest member contributor. The University has campuses in all member countries with its Laucala Bay campus being its main campus.

A group of staff and students at the main Suva campus of the University of the South Pacific staged a short and peaceful protest today.

It drew a crowd of about 100 men and women, some holding placards in support for besieged Vice Chancellor of the USP, Professor Pal Ahluwalia of Canada.

Other banners were very critical of the Pro Chancellor of the USP, Winston Thompon of Fiji, who was holding a meeting inside a conference room at the university's main administration block, as the protestors gathered outside.

Uniformed Fiji police officers were guarding the door of the conference room and other officers stood around the lawn amongst the protestors.

"Winston must resign," one placard read, while another declared 'Stop destablising USP.'

They broke into cheers of "we want Pal" occasionally. 

I’ts not known whether the meeting of the executive committee of the USP Council, which Thompson was convening this morning had the required quorum.

VC Ahaluwalia was a notable absentee, although he also sits in the Council's executive committee.

He was seen at his office, which was just above the conference room where Thompson and his group were meeting.

Incoming chancellor of the university and Nauru President, Lionel Aingimea sent another urgent plea yesterday to Council members asking that today's meeting be deferred.

"I remind us all that this University is owned by the member countries for the benefit of the people and well-being and needs of the communities of the South Pacific," wrote President Aingimea.

"A small group of Council members who do not represent the member countries have hijacked the Council process."

It is not clear whether this particular letter, President Aingimea's second to the USP Council in a matter of two days, was received by Thompson in time for the meeting this morning.

A document purported to be part of the meeting's agenda  shows three letters for discussion: one from Thompson's deputy and Tongan accountant Aloma Johansson on "allegations of material misconduct" against Vice Chancellor Ahluwalia. The date of the letter was not disclosed.

Also on the agenda was VC Ahluwalia's response to the allegations dated 1 May, and the third letter is said to be that of PC Thompson dated 6 May, which is itemised as his response to "VC Ahluwalia's report."

The document did not specify the line of action the meeting would take, although it has been suggested that it would seek the suspension of the vice chancellor.

An urgent call by the President of Nauru, Lionel Aingimea for an end to the leadership battle at the University of the South Pacific has triggered an avalanche of concern from other member governments, as well as students and staff of the university.

Samoa’s minister for education Loau Kaneti Sio has gone one step further, by calling on the Pro Chancellor of the university and chair of the USP Council Winston Thompson to step down from the role.

Minister Sio says President Aingimea, as the incoming Chancellor of the USP, should succeed Thompson in the interim.

Thompson, a retired Fiji diplomat, has been at loggerheads with USP’s Vice Chancellor Professor Pal Ahluwalia since the later took office and raised concerns about governance at the university. This led to the commissioning of an investigation and report by BDO New Zealand.

“It is clear that the relationship between the Pro Chancellor and the Vice Chancellor has broken down irretrievably, and that the Pro Chancellor has not abided by his agreement with Council, nor with the Sub-Committee appointed to oversee the Commission, to work with the Vice Chancellor for the benefit of the USP,” wrote Samoa’s minister in a strongly-worded letter similar to the one sent out to USP Council members on Friday by President Aingimea.

He agrees with President Aingimea’s position that a meeting of the executive committee called by Thompson at the USP’s Laucala campus for tomorrow does not have the mandate to discipline VC Ahluwalia.

Emeritus Professor Pat Walsh, who is New Zealand’s representative on the council, also sent in a letter of concern on Friday.

As one of the major financiers of the USP, the New Zealand government has one seat in the Council.

Under USP’s own ordinance, the executive committee of the Council does not investigate the vice chancellor, so any “meeting which purported to dismiss, suspend or otherwise discipline the VC would have no standing,” warned Walsh.

He added ‘sound governance principles’ have not been observed by Thompson and his allies, revealing in his letter that minutes of two Council meetings convened last year specifically to map out ways to resolve the row between Thompson and Ahluwalia, as well as at least two Council committee meetings, have not been circulated to members.

“The net effect of these actions and inactions is that Council has been unable to exercise effective governance of the University for 7 months and lacks documentation of events for several months prior to that,” wrote Professor Walsh.

“This has occurred at a time when the University was already being challenged by a critical financial situation which has now been made worse by the Covid-19 pandemic. “

Meanwhile, in a show of solidarity for VC Ahluwalia and President Aingimea, the staff of USP joined their student body in calling for an end to the hostilities.

The future of the university and the students’ academic programmes are threatened each day, said the joint letter of support for Ahluwalia, warning that everything should be done “to protect this institution as boiling point is on the horizon.”

The statement by staff and students expresses concern about the impact on students, taxpayers and donors as a result of the controversy, and says the matter has been taken to a “very personal level.”

The staff and students of USP also endorsed calls by President Aingimea and supported by Samoa and New Zealand, that a full (online or virtual) council meeting should be convened to resolve the matter once and for all.

Islands Business understands that the Pro Chancellor remains determined to hold tomorrow’s meeting, despite the concerns raised from Council members, staff and students.

Nauru’s President Lionel Aingimea has called for an end to the incessant attempts to remove the vice chancellor and president of the University of the South Pacific, instigated by Fiji-based members of the university council.

“As the incoming Chancellor of the USP and one of the heads of state who own the University as well as being an alumnus, I am disturbed at the manner in which this matter is being played out,” President Aingimea wrote in a strongly worded letter dated 4 June, 2020 that was circulated to all Council members of the USP.

“Any moves to undermine or remove the VC using COVID-19 as a cover by deploying the executive committee emergency powers to take the place of Council must not be entertained.

“These are matters that the full Council must deliberate on, and exercise its wisdom and authority.”

President Aingimea’s call is the strongest endorsement so far for the besieged USP leader, who right from the time he assumed the VC position in early 2019, has come under intense pressure to either resign or be dismissed by a group led by current chair of the USP Council and Pro Chancellor Winston Thompson and backed by Fiji Government nominees in the Council, as well as several Fijian members of the USP executive management team.

All of these university executives had called for Professor Ahluwalia’s removal after he questioned their appointments or pay in a confidential report he authored a month or so after assuming the role.

Among the group is the former CEO of the university’s Pacific TAFE Hasmukh Lal whose termination a fortnight ago by Ahluwalia triggered a fresh attempt for his removal by the group.

Although Lal’s removal was not related to the power struggle, he and his lawyers believed otherwise and have taken the matter to court.

It is this latest attempt to launch another investigation against the USP VC that triggered President Aingimea’s letter, and as the incoming chancellor of the university, head of his government, and a well-connected alumnus of USP,  his words carry much weight.

“It is … preposterous to consider that a new investigation has been suggested when a previous investigation remains open and unresolved,” wrote the President.

“It is clear to me that Council appointed a Commission to find a way forward to build a stronger USP.

“To now call for another investigation reeks of bad faith and clearly undermines the work of the Commission and by extension, the sub-committee of Council tasked with overseeing this process.

“The Commission must be allowed to carry out its work and report to Council in due course as per Council resolutions.”

Both the Commission and the sub-committee President Aingimea made reference to were formed by the USP Council in two separate meetings last year in response to the leadership struggle against VC Ahluwalia.

Their work was to oversee the implementation of the report of BDO New Zealand after it was commissioned by the Council to study the human and financial resources as well as governance matters Professor Ahluwalia had raised.

Senior academics in Australia and New Zealand of Graeme McNally, Professor Satish Chand and Professor Jenni Lightowlers make up the members of the Commission, while Cook Islands Prime Minister Henry Puna, Samoa’s deputy prime minister Fiame Naomi Mata’afa and Fiji’s Attorney General Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum form the Council’s sub-committee.

The letter of the Nauru leader was also critical of the role played by Mahmood Khan, another Fiji nominee to the USP Council. He is chair of the Council’s audit and risk committee and together with Thompson, has been a key critic of VC Ahluwalia.

President Aingimea also rejected Thompson/Khan’s group claims that a full meeting of the University Council could not be convened due to restrictions brought about by the COVID-19 lockdown.

“There is no reason that the full Council cannot meet digitally.

“This is a time when Council and all members should exercise caution and remember that the VC has a huge responsibility to steer the University through one of its most challenging times.

“As an appointee of the Council, we have a duty of care to the VC, “ said President Ainigimea.

The year-long leadership tussle at the sole Pacific owned university has flared again with reports of fresh attempts to dismiss besieged vice chancellor and president of the University of the South Pacific, Professor Pal Ahluwalia of Canada.

This new attempt to remove Ahluwalia reportedly stemmed from his decision a fortnight ago to terminate a senior USP manager for alleged plagiarism.

IB Online spoke to the university's controversial pro chancellor and USP Council chair Winston Thompson today, and while he confirmed that he is  convening a meeting of the executive committee of the council on Monday next week, the retired Fijian diplomat declined to reveal the meeting's agenda.

He also declined to confirm whether the suspension of Professor Ahluwalia will be discussed.

Tensions between the two surfaced in public more than a year ago after the leaking of a report that was critical of several appointments and payments made by the university during the term of Ahluwalia's predecessor, Professor Rajesh Chandra of Fiji.

Ahluwalia authored the report, and his critics, including Thompson and Chandra, accused the Canadian academic of leaking the report to the news media.

Attempts by Thompson to sack Ahluwalia on at least two occasions last year were foiled by the USP Council, which instead formed two groups of experts to look into the issues raised by both vice chancellor Ahluwalia and a BDO New Zealand report. The Council had commissioned the accounting firm to review the allegations Ahluwalia had raised.

In March this year, Thompson launched another attempt to remove the vice chancellor by writing to Council members to say that he has formed a committee comprising of mainly Fiji-based councillors to investigate Ahluwalia on allegations of misconduct.

The status of this investigation is unknown after several education ministers from Pacific Island governments that co-own the USP with Fiji, wrote in to warn Thompson to stop his investigation and his constant interference in the running of the university.

Just yesterday, IB Online published the story of Hasmukh Lal, the previous CEO of Pacific TAFE who has taken legal action against the university for what he claimed was unfair dismissal.

He is accusing his previous employer of breach of contract, of negligence and breach of duty of care, and is claiming damages as well as reinstatement.

IB Online has established that Lal's termination was over a dissertation for a doctor of business administration he was pursuing at an online university, called the Atlantic International University on 21 May 2019.

Called the 'Processes & Impact of Strategic Mergers in Higher Education; Study of Pacific Technical and Further Education of [the] University of the South Pacific,' Lal allegedly  plagiarised elements of the paper from one of his former employees at the USP.

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